30 Astonishing Facts About Death

iStock.com/AlexSava
iStock.com/AlexSava

Death is the start of a great adventure—never mind that you might not be around for it.

  1. You can be declared dead in some states but considered alive in others. That's because New York and New Jersey allow families to reject the concept of brain death if it goes against their religious beliefs.
  1. One of the first visible signs of death is when the eyes cloud over, as fluid and oxygen stop flowing to the corneas. That can happen within 10 minutes after death if the eyes were open (and 24 hours if the eyes were closed).
  1. Today, there are about 300 bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen in America in the hope that science will one day be able to bring them back to life. (Contrary to popular belief, Walt Disney is not one of them.)
  1. It's a myth that hair and nails grow after death. What really happens is that the body dries out, so the nail beds and skin on the head retract, making nails, stubble, and hair appear longer.
  1. Rigor mortis is only temporary. It's a result of certain fibers in the muscle cells becoming linked by chemical bonds, but usually goes away in a day or two as those bonds break down. How long it lasts depends on the temperature in the environment, among other factors.

A corpse flower, or titan arum, known for smelling a lot like death.iStock.com/patty_c
  1. Two of the gases responsible for the distinctive smell of death are called putrescine and cadaverine. They're produced when bacteria break down the amino acids ornithine and lysine, respectively.
  1. Bodies can become covered in what looks like soap after death. Technically known as adipocere (and sometimes also called grave wax), it's a byproduct of decomposition that happens as the fat in a body decays under wet, anaerobic (lacking in oxygen) conditions. Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum and Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian each have an adipocere-covered corpse on display.
  1. There are more than 200 corpses of failed climbers frozen on Mount Everest.
  1. The low-temperature, low-oxygen, highly acidic environmental conditions of European peat bogs can preserve bodies with remarkable detail for centuries, and even millennia. One of the most famous examples of these "bog bodies" is the Iron Age Tollund Man in Denmark. When his body was discovered in 1950, it looked so fresh his discoverers thought they'd found a recent murder victim.

iStock.com/ianmcdonnell
  1. Scientists are currently studying the "necrobiome"—all the bacteria and fungi in a corpse—to figure out whether changes in the microbes alone can provide clues to the time of death. The concept is known as the "microbial clock."
  1. People used to believe that the blood of the freshly executed was a health tonic, and would pay executioners a few coins to drink it warm from the gallows.
  1. "Hop the twig," "yield the crow a pudding," "snuff one's glim," and "climb the six-foot ladder," were all once slang terms for death.
  1. Dead bodies generally aren't dangerous just because they're dead. But in the 19th century, there was widespread belief in "miasmatic theory," which said that air coming from rotting corpses and other sources of decay lead to the spread of disease. This belief was more or less replaced by germ theory.

iStock.com/fergregory
  1. Embalming is rarely required by law, except in certain situation where bodies leave state borders.
  1. The average human body produces between 3 and 9 pounds of cremated remains after being burned. The cremation chamber, known as a retort, can get as hot as 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.
  1. The Victorians often took photos of dead loved ones as part of their grieving process. These postmortem photographs became keepsakes that were displayed in homes, sent to friends and relatives, and worn inside lockets.
  1. In at least one version of telegraph code, LOL meant "loss of life."
  1. In 897, Pope Stephen VI had the corpse of a previous pope, Formosus, exhumed, perched on a throne, and questioned about his "crimes" (which were mostly about being on the wrong side of a political struggle.) The event is known as the Cadaver Synod.
  1. The term mortician was invented as part of a PR campaign by the funeral industry, which felt it was more customer-friendly than undertaker. The term was chosen after a call for ideas in Embalmer's Monthly.

A statue of Abraham Lincoln, whose embalming widely popularized the practiceBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
  1. The embalming of Abraham Lincoln for the journey from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, is widely credited with encouraging everyday acceptance of the practice.
  1. You're more likely to be killed at a dance party than while skydiving.
  1. Between the 16th and the early 20th centuries, artists used ground-up mummies as paint pigment. (It was also thought to be a potent medicine.)
  1. The idea that graves need to be 6 feet deep comes from a 1665 plague outbreak in England, when the mayor of London decreed the burial depth to limit the spread of disease.
  1. No Mormon mourning is complete without Mormon funeral potatoes, a cheesy casserole that usually involves cornflakes. Other foods associated with death include pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"), traditionally eaten on Dia De Los Muertos in Mexico; ossa dei morti ("bones of the dead") cookies in Italy, meant to represent the bones of dead saints; and Victorian funeral biscuits.

Mormon funeral potatoes GreenGlass1972, Wikimedia // Public Domain
  1. Contrary to popular reports, it's not illegal to die in Longyearbyen, Norway. But since the town has no nursing homes and only a small hospital, residents are required to move to the mainland once they become elderly. It is true that it's so cold there bodies barely decompose.
  1. "Human composting," in which bodies decompose into dirt in reusable "recomposition vessels," could soon be legal in Washington state. The results don't smell, and are suitable for use in the garden.
  1. The Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland, Colorado, is held each year in honor of a 110-year-old corpse located in a local Tuff Shed and surrounded by dry ice (it's a DIY cryonics set-up). The festival features coffin racing, frozen salmon tossing, costumed polar plunging, and frozen t-shirt contests.

Coffin racing at the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland, Colorado in 2019JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images
  1. In the 19th century, several inventors came up with "safety coffins" equipped with bells, flags, and air tubes and designed to help people avoid being buried alive.
  1. Although the etiquette guides for Victorian mourning varied widely, widows mourned for a total of two-and-a-half years, while widowers mourned for three months.
  1. In the 17th century and beyond, human skulls were soaked in alcohol to create a tincture called “the King’s drops" that was said to be good for gout, dropsy (edema), and "all fevers putrid or pestilential," among other ailments. King Charles II of England allegedly paid £6000 for a personal recipe.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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22 Creepy Cryptids From Around the World

Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.
Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.

According to Merriam-Webster, a cryptid is an animal "that has been claimed to exist but never proven to exist." But as Bigfoot believers and Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts are often quick to point out, it’s pretty difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. Plus, it’s much more fun to indulge in the idea that giant sea monsters and hairy humanoids are roaming the uncharted corners of the planet.

On this episode of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is taking viewers across time and space to unearth legends about lesser-known monsters that, again, haven’t been proven to not exist. Take the Mongolian death worm, a lamprey-like nightmare that supposedly lives in the Gobi Desert and radiates a poison so strong that you could die just by standing near it. If you’re an ill-behaved child or a Catholic who scarfs down steak every Friday during Lent, watch out for the Rougarou, a Louisiana-based werewolf that sniffs out those two demographics.

Learn about more fearsome, fascinating cryptids of all kinds in the video below, and subscribe to the Mental Floss YouTube channel for future episodes of The List Show.